Works: "King of the Bingo Game"
Ellison (1914-1994). Black American novelist, essayist,
and short story writer most famous for the novel Invisible
Man (1952). Ellison is notable for his engagement of
issues of oppression and social injustice from a broad human
perspective, as well as his rejection of narrow political
views and agendas, racial or otherwise.
Ralph Waldo Ellison born in Oklahoma City, USA; named after
Ralph Waldo Emerson.
drawn to the study of music, Ellison left Oklahoma to pursue
a degree in music at Tuskegee, Alabama, where he experienced
forced to leave Tuskegee, went to New York; in Harlem, he
met the poet Langston Hughes with whom he developed a close
friendship; Hughes introduced him to novelist Richard Wright
who encouraged him to become a writer.
worked as a researcher in the Federal Writer's Project in
published his first short story, "Slick Gonna Learn,"
in the September issue of Direction.
quit the Federal Writer's Project and became managing editor
of Negro Quarterly; this move reflects his desire to
explore black American culture independently from any political
ideologies or agendas.
published two of his finest short stories, "King of the
Bingo Game" and "Flying Home" in Cross Section.
married Fanny McConnell, who was Executive Director of the
American Center for Burma at the time.
publication of Invisible Man, the novel which is his
most famous work and made him an important new voice in postwar
Invisible Man received the National Book Award; the
jury praised Ellison for having "the courage to take
many literary risks."
published story, "And Hickman Arrives," part of
a series intended for an ambitious novel on African-American
Invisible Man selected, in Book Week poll, as
the most distinguished post-World War II American novel.
the 368-page manuscript of the Hickman novel destroyed by
received the Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Ellison became Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at
New York University, a chair he occupied for ten years; appointed
"Chevalier de l'Ordre des Artes et Lettres" ("Knight
of the Order of Arts and Letters) by France's Ministry of
Cultural Affairs, then under the direction of André
elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
publication of Going to the Territory, a series of
essays on African- American culture.
posthumous publication of Juneteenth, novel extracted
and compiled by John F. Callahan (Ellison's literary executor)
from about 2,000 pages of unfinished work left by Ellison.
Gonna Learn" and "The Birthmark," published in 1939
and 1940, Ellison's initial stories. Set in the American South and
revolving around issues of class struggle and oppression, "Slick"
deals with the title character's response to being laid off from
his job when his pregnant wife requires medical care. "The
Birthmark," alluding to a story of the same title by Nathaniel
Hawthorne, deals with the idea of black skin indelibly given at
birth, never to be removed.
"Mr. Toussan," and "That I Had the Wings" --
published in 1940, 1941, and 1943 respectively. The stories are
about two children, Buster and Riley, and deal with themes of identity,
learning, and conflict between generations as well as different
attitudes toward the white world. Ellison presents a dual conflict
between the boys and the bigotry of the white world, and between
the boys and older black figures who attempt to pass on to them
a slave mentality.
"In a Strange
Country" (1944) deals with a young African-American marine,
Parker, who is beaten by a group of white soldiers. The story explores
the familiar Ellison theme of a search for American democratic ideals
and the reality of racism.
Home" (1944), one of Ellison's most successful short stories;
Todd, a black young cadet training in the Deep South has chosen
to become a pilot to prove that he is not inferior; after being
forced to crash-land his plane, he realizes that his "blackness"
and his African-American heritage are as much a part of him as his
acquired skills and training.
Man (1952), one of the most influential American novels of the
post-World War II period; written in the first person, it is a kind
of Bildungsroman about
an idealistic young Negro who begins as a student at a black college
in the South, dutifully hoping to become a "credit to his race";
a naïve error leads to his expulsion and he makes his way to
Harlem; there, he experiences a series of bizarre adventures which
finally leave him with the realization that he is in fact faceless
to others, rendered invisible by his race and historical circumstances.
Blue Devils. An Oklahoma jazz band led by Walter Page. The
band was prominent from 1923 to 1934 and included Walter Page,
Eddie Durham, Buster Smith, Charlie Christian, Lester Young,
Jimmy Rushing, and William "Count" Basie. The name
of the band also refers to people who cut barbed wire fences
during cattle country range wars and had an outlaw connotation.
Their music exhibited freedom within discipline, one of Ellison's
continuing themes; their style became a fundamental part of
Writer's Project. A program established in the United States
in 1935 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as part of
the New Deal struggle against the Great Depression. It provided
jobs for unemployed writers, editors, and research workers.
Directed by Henry G. Alsberg, it operated in all states and
at one time employed 6,600 men and women. Ellison's work for
the Federal Writer's Project convinced him that black folk art
provided an important key to understanding the African-American
Frontier Thesis. Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932), American
historian, held that the American character was decisively shaped
by conditions on the frontier, in particular the abundance of
free land, which engendered such traits as self-reliance, individualism,
inventiveness, restless energy, mobility, materialism, and optimism.
Turner's "frontier thesis" rose to become the dominant
interpretation of American history. This interpretation of the
American experience, which is clearly contradicted by the history
of enslavement and oppression of blacks in America, was central
to Ellison's imaginative attempts to confront the reality of
a world that is free only in appearance.
A district of New York City occupying a large part of northern
Manhattan Island and bordering with the Bronx. After World War
I, Harlem became the center of the literary and artistic movement
called the "Harlem Renaissance."
Renaissance. From 1920 until about 1930 an unprecedented
outburst of creative activity among African-Americans occurred
in all fields of art. Beginning as a series of literary discussions
in the lower Manhattan (Greenwich Village) and upper Manhattan
(Harlem) sections of New York City, this African-American cultural
movement became known as "The New Negro Movement"
and later as the "Harlem Renaissance." The Harlem
Renaissance exalted the unique culture of African-Americans
and its heritage. Representative figures include Langston Hughes
and Alain Locke.
Hughes (1902-1967). Black American poet and writer who became
one of the foremost interpreters of the black experience in
the United States. Hughes enabled Ellison to get in touch with
Richard Wright and the works of André Malraux, both of
which had a powerful influence on Ellison.
Wright (1908-1960) Black novelist and short-story writer
who was among the first American artists to protest the white
treatment of blacks, notably in his novel Native Son
(1940) and his autobiography, Black Boy (1945). He inaugurated
the tradition of protest explored by other black writers after
World War II. Ellison's friendship with Richard Wright changed
Ellison's career from music to writing.
Last updated: July 9, 2013
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